Kathleen Armenta was one of two Tucson recipients of a $20,000 scholarship from Dell. 

Ruben Valdez

Life has never been easy for Kathleen Armenta.

But, instead of dwelling on the hardships she and her family have endured — fear of parents being deported, working at 5 a.m. every day to earn pennies, home invasion — she has drawn strength from them and persevered. 

The Cholla High Magnet School student threw herself into school and has led an active academic life through it all, earning her enough scholarship money to attend Bowdoin College, a liberal arts school in Maine, with the goal of becoming an immigration or civil rights attorney. 

Most recently, Armenta was one of two Tucson recipients of a $20,000 scholarship from the Dell Scholars Program, which will help fund grad school.  

The Dell Scholars Program selects high school seniors who have overcome significant obstacles to pursue their college education. Almost half of the 400 selected for the scholarships are part of the Advancement Via Individual Determination or AVID program, which helps students prepare for college.

She will be the first in her family to graduate high school and attend college.

Armenta's troubles started before she was even born.

While still in her mother's womb, her parents hired a coyote to get them across the border. They wanted their baby to be born in the U.S. so she would have more opportunities than their town afforded. 

"They had given all their money and trust to a coyote and they were abandoned," Armenta said. "They were abandoned for seven days without money and water, they survived the burning desert."

Once here, the family struggled to make ends meet.

As long as Armenta can remember, she has been getting up at 5 a.m. to help her parents with whatever odd job they had. She remembers selling pastries and candies at swap meets and flea markets, cleaning houses with her mom and going along with her father as he found old cars to fix up and sell. 

She remembers being yelled at and called racist names by the people who hired them.

She remembers constantly worrying her parents would be deported. 

"As I was growing up, I was learning English as well, so I always had to be by their side translating," Armenta recalled. "So my whole life was me and my mom cleaning houses, helping my dad, having to face all the racism...It was really hard because my parents are immigrants. We'd have to be hiding from border patrol or they couldn't have a job because they didn't have social security numbers."

They lived in a one room house, using a bucket with plywood as a table. The floor served as chairs.

Once the family had a little more money, they moved into a trailer, where Armenta lived for most of her life. 

That's where an incident she will never forget took place.

"We had a home invasion," Armenta recalled. "I was watching TV and I remember I felt like someone was behind me and when I turned around there was a huge man and he asked 'Where's your mom?' in his deep voice."

Terrified, Armenta ran to get her mom. The man pointed a gun at her mother and demanded money.

Armenta ran out the back door screaming for help, but nobody answered. 

By then two other men were in the house and had hit her mother with a gun. They took all the savings the family had and left.

When they called the police, they were questioned about selling drugs and weren't allowed in the house for several hours.

"I felt helpless and angry that they were accusing us instead of protecting us," Armenta recalled. "I thought the police would help us but all they did is interrogate us."

Armenta was traumatized by the ordeal and couldn't help but think, "What if it was worse?"

"I don't know what I would have done without my mom," Armenta said. "She's the heart of my family. It was very traumatizing."

Soon after that, the family was able to obtain a visa specifically for victims of criminal activity so they could legally stay and work in the United States. Recently, they received their residency green card. 

The ordeal sparked a curiosity in Armenta. She wanted to learn more about the legal system, so when she got to high school she became a teen attorney at the Pima County Teen Court, joined clubs and kept active.

"I focused on my education. I was like 'I'm not gonna let this stop me from continuing my success,'" Armenta said. "So I did. I joined clubs, did volunteering service, kept my grades up and did everything to keep myself active because I didn't want to shift myself into this depressed traumatized mindset."

Despite snide, and sometimes racist, remarks from other students and lack of support from some teachers, she continued to get good grades, applied for programs and volunteered.

"I won't let all these hardships stop me from continuing something I can pursue further, but mostly it's my parents that motivate me," Armenta said. "They're always there, always encouraging me and they work non-stop day and night. I really admire them for that, but I want to do something for them. I want to repay them for everything they've done for me and my brother. I want to prove to them that all their sacrifices were worth something and they didn't come here for us to not be something."

She also serves as a mentor at the Lapan College Club, a local organization that helps students find resources to get into college and has applied for, and earned, 10 scholarships. 

"So excited for Kathleen," said Lucy Kin, executive director of the Lapan College Club. "This is a young lady that is going places and that we should see in a national leadership position in a few short years."

Armenta joined the Lapan College Club seven years ago when she was a sixth grader attending Wakefield Middle School. She and her mother attended every college readiness program the organization offered, Kin said. 

As a sophomore Armenta became a mentor in the Lapan Cross Age Peer Mentor Program where top students are trained to mentor sixth, seventh and eighth graders. 

"She became one of our stellar mentors taking a strong leadership role and has followed through on her commitment to mentor the same students for the three years they are in middle school despite her very busy schedule," Kin said in a college recommendation letter for Armenta.

Armenta will start college in August and is going to major in governmental legal studies. 

"I really want to help others," Armenta said. "I want to become an immigration attorney or a civil rights attorney so I can help people who were in my family's situation. That's been my dream, to help others."

Angela Pittenger | This Is Tucson